March 28, 2013

Jane Goodall accused of plagiarism


Nobody wants to hear it, but it’s become abundantly clear that Jane Goodall’s new book, Seeds of Hope, is a mess. In a story in the Daily Beast earlier this week, Michael Moynihan (who recently covered the sad, sordid fall, then half-rise, then slightly further fall, of Jonah Lehrer from the heights of media respectability) details the extent of the problems with the book: it lifts things from online sources without credit, invents interviews, sloppily copies, and makes criticisms of genetically modified food based on research that’s not always reputable.

It’s not pretty to see a book taken apart, stone by stone, like this, but, unfortunately, it’s hardly surprising. It’s long been clear that Goodall’s recent books are Frankenstein projects: books devised both to feed public love of Goodall and to generate funds for the Jane Goodall Institute and the Gombe Stream Research Center. This duel purpose implicitly justifies their obvious whiftiness—how many books can you publish with “hope” in the title before a reader gets suspicious? Reason for Hope, Harvest for Hope, Hope for Animals and Their World, Seeds of Hope (and that’s just since 2000!).

But Goodall is not alone. There are many, many books whose self-evident flaws are immediately forgiven because it’s understood that they serve some greater purpose. That is, they are expected to make money for their publishers because they offer an inspiring message or fund a worthy project with which the author (or at least the person who is listed as the author) is associated. Sometimes these books flatter readers by promising some new insight into how they, the readers, are actually much smarter than they think—Lehrer’s books fall in this category—in a package that offers itself as a cheat sheet for “smartness,” a way to catch up on the world’s research in the form of a palatable and ultimately self-affirming storyline.

It’s really no wonder that there is an industry of ghostwriters or co-writers out there, or that writers like Lehrer and Goodall are regularly exposed for trotting out this kind of thin material: it’s a much simpler approach than, say, making a nuanced argument based on complicated (and often conflicted) research, and it pays. If you’re established enough or intellectually dashing in some superficially new (yet approachable) way, you can get away with it for a long time. In fact, if you’d like a closer and more penetrating analysis of this whole phenomenon, Melville House author Curtis White examines it in much greater detail in his forthcoming book The Science Delusion.

But what’s particularly disappointing about all of this is that these figures have taken up the mantle of what used to be called “popular science” without either the narrative talent of earlier generations or the critically appraised material for which readers look to them. And I don’t think those two elements are mutually exclusive: an intelligent science book is intelligent because the material and the conclusions that might be drawn from it are handled in ways that don’t fall into easy formulas. The degree of mental self-checking, the resistance to the obvious story—these seem to have fallen away in the face of a knot of “interests,” feeding-the-beast publishing, and just plain unchecked ambition.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.